First Movie, Second Movie
Something cool happened this week: we got the go ahead to announce that The Mirror Game (a movie which I wrote, and my friend Will Stribling directed) will have its world premiere at Cinequest on April 1, and has already been accepted at several other festivals with (fingers crossed) more to come.
I made my version of the announcement on Instagram. In my gushy post, I said that the post was “either a year or 5 or 30 in the making.”
A year, because we shot the movie a year ago.
Five years, because that’s about how long ago I first had the idea for the play that would eventually become this movie.
30 years because…well, I guess I meant that it’s a goal that I’ve always had somewhere in my heart? I definitely didn’t daydream about getting a movie into a film festival at age 9, because I didn’t really have a concept of what a film festival was. At 9, I wanted to be an actor. Not a grown up actor either — a child actor, like the many child actors one saw on TGIF or even in movies sometimes. But that’s a story for a different day.
I might have added another number in there between five and thirty: twelve. You see, twelve years ago was the last time I tried in earnest to get a film into a festival. The movie in question is the one that I referenced a few weeks ago in my letter to Cole. It was show/choir, a documentary that I started planning when I was 22, in a college course about cinema verite style documentary filmmaking.1 I didn’t finish it until I was 27, though the footage was all long-since captured (because the movie followed just one — spoiler alert — rather disappointing year in the life of my own high school’s showchoir).
Looking back now, I can see how my first movie was an act of sheer hubris and willpower. To be sure, it would not have been possible without the cooperation of the subjects of the film (then mostly highschoolers, now adults with families of their own), and of course I had help from Cole and a few others, as well as financial support from a number of people (even strangers!) to amass the exceedingly small amount of money I ended up spending to make it. But, essentially, I made the movie by myself.
Before the film premiered in 2011, I got interviewed and photographed for the U of C website2, and for the Northwest Indiana Times, and even had a wonderful and well-attended hometown screening of the film at the very high school auditorium that has come up in these pages once or twice. But as far as film festivals, there were no takers. I didn’t have the time, money, or legal wherewithal to push it into the world in some other way.3
And then, I went to actual film school and learned all the mistakes I’d made.
I learned how movies — even documentaries — tend to be funded, planned, and made. For example: Usually, more than one person is involved. The more I learned, the more insecure I got about the film I’d created. I thought about all the choices I’d have made differently if I’d known better what I was doing, and how much better that version of the movie might’ve been. Of course, this “other movie” would never have existed either; it was my plucky naïveté that gave me the confidence to even try and do something so ill-advised. Had I been more savvy or prudent, there would likely have been no movie at all.
Here’s something you might not know about the Internet Movie Database: just by submitting your film to certain festivals, an IMDb page for your movie gets created. Just by putting the movie up for consideration, you kind of prove its existence, and it gets recorded in the annals of history. So, there’s that.
The week of the show/choir premiere back in Chesterton, I got interviewed by phone for our high school radio station, WDSO. The student interviewing me asked me, logically enough, what my next documentary would be about. I stumbled through my answer, but I’m pretty sure I answered with God’s honest truth: “I don’t really want to make another documentary. I never set out to be a documentarian. I just wanted to tell this story.”
And here we are, all these years later. After getting a master’s degree in SCREENwriting, I wrote a STAGE play, because a play was the thing best suited to the idea I had (two characters, one location). LA’s InHouse Theatre put that play on, not on a stage, but in a series of hotel rooms. Then, the pandemic hit, and suddenly it seemed very reasonable to turn a small-scale, one location play into a movie.
I can’t help but compare and contrast these two wildly different movies. One is a documentary, one is a dramedy; both tell a story with which I’m deeply, personally connected. One had literally no budget, and one had a carefully considered budget; both were made for an impossibly small sum of money, by Hollywood standards. One was made by an inexperienced artist just going with her gut, and the other was made a by a team of professionals who genuinely know what they are doing; both shoots were unconventional4.
Here’s the biggest one: I am deeply proud of both movies. But for opposite reasons.
The first one, I’m proud of largely because I did it all by myself.
This second one, I am proud of because I could never have done it by myself. And I didn’t have to. The look, feel, planning, and execution of the movie can be largely attributed to the director and cinematographer (who, unlike in show/choir, are two different people, neither of whom are me). Then there are the actors who carry the film, and the tiny crew that worked their asses off to pull out this miracle5. Before that, there were the actors and directors of the staged version of the play, who got the work on its feet and made the pivotal choices of an Original Cast. Then there are the writers and actors who read the play as it was being written and in so doing, helped me shape the play that would go on to become the screenplay that would go on to become this movie.
People have asked me often, throughout these five years, if it was scary to turn my work over to others. And the answer was always: maybe it would have been, if they hadn’t been such excellent guardians of the work. Instead, it was simply, endlessly, flattering and humbling to watch this parade of people care so much about my little brainchild.
Having tried it both ways, I can say that the only thing “easier” about doing it all yourself is that you never have to risk the part of you that asks that question: “What if they don’t take care of my idea?” Nor do you have to risk the part of you that fears the changes or challenges collaborators might raise. The more one’s work is out in the world, the greater that risk of challenge becomes. I don’t have to think too much about how viewers might judge my first movie anymore, because it’s not out there for people to see. This second film has already been through the ringer of acceptance and rejection for years — since before it was even a movie — but I know the greater risk is still to come.
I still like this second way better.
If you’re curious about show/choir, hit me up and I’ll send you a link and password to where you can watch on Vimeo.
At that time, the only practical filmmaking courses you could take at University of Chicago were about documentary filmmaking, and I took them all, studying from influential documentary cinematographer Judy Hoffman.
There were practical considerations too; I’d shot the film in standard definition digital, top of the line home video for 2005, but in the intervening years, HD had become so commonplace you could shoot better quality video on your smartphone. And that was back in 2011.
and sometimes downright illegal
Including my roommate, Megan, who came along as our SAG-mandated COVID compliance officer.